Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Black Lives Matter and the Problem of Performative Activism

Image courtesy of The Guardian. Photograph: Mark Trowbridge/Getty Images

This article was originally published in the Women’s Republic.

After the senseless killings of Geroge Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year, an uproar surged on social media. An online movement began to post information and resources on how to help Black people and communities. The power of social media spread not only in America but also in Asia, Europe, and Africa.

To show support and solidarity to the murders of Black people in America, people all around the world posted black squares. But what exactly happened when these black squares were posted? Were they at all effective when it came to learning about racism?

Many companies, brands, and celebrities posted the black squares with the promise of welcoming more diversity and inclusivity for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour or BIPOC employees. They claimed that they did not have a diverse workspace and wanted to right that wrong and welcome new and fresh voices.

The purpose of Black Lives Matter and educating people on racism and inequality was completely hijacked by issues that were not necessarily the central problem. The performative activism and allyship were not helping and it showed that people were doing minimal work through social media.

What happened after #BlackoutTuesday?

The idea of #BlackoutTuesday was to post black squares for just one day instead of the usual content, as a vow of silence and solidarity. It gave a chance for white influencers and celebrities to reflect and acknowledge their privilege and educate themselves on systemic racism in America. The movement received a lot of support from many companies, and they believed that it was the way to move forward to create a long-lasting change in their environment. The intention behind all of this was to show the public that these companies were changing and learning how they had treated their Black employees.

However, the problem here is that after the black squares were posted, everything went back to normal. It seemed as though posting the black squares made them exempt from being called out for being racist or ignorant. This action means that they are not able to understand activism and are not willing to learn about racial inequality. This is not in any way calling out anyone who posted black squares and shared their messages of solidarity. Social media activism is a powerful tool that can be used to share a lot of information, resources, and it helps to strategize protests and inform people on how to help the community.

The black squares that were posted last year were a form of performative activism, and it does not stop there. To spread information about racism, people posted illustrations and designed statements in trendy fonts to show support for Black Lives Matter.

However, influencers started taking photoshoots and pretended to drill a hole near a looted store and Heather Morris, who played Brittany in Glee, posted a dance on TikTok. These actions did not help the movement or spread information or make any change in their lives by educating themselves.

India’s beauty industry and its reckoning

Colourism is deeply rooted in India’s colonial past. Foreign empires, including the Mughal Empire, fetishised skin colour and preferred paler skin colour instead of darker skin colour. The British were instrumental in setting and promoting colourism in India during their reign. The issue of colourism also extends to the caste system.

In the South Asian communities, Black Lives Matter has sparked a conversation on the issue of colourism within the beauty industry. Companies like Johnson & Johnson announced that they would stop selling skin-lightening products and Unilever revealed that they would drop the word “fair” from the brand name. The public outrage towards skin-lightening products and brands has been rampant for years, but the murder of George Floyd increased businesses’ response to racial discrimination.

In addition to the businesses that were changing their brand names or dropping products to deflect the public outrage, actors were also called out for promoting skin-whitening products. Bollywood actors like Priyanka Chopra and many others promoted these skin-lightening products for many years, and last year had posted their solidarity and support for the murders of Black Americans.

Last year, Unilever announced that they had changed the name Fair & Lovely to Glow & Lovely. According to the company, the aim of changing the brand name is to take a more positive and inclusive approach to the standards of beauty. Regardless of the intention, India’s beauty industry still preys on the insecurities of young women and girls. Even if the company makes these changes, they will always be complicit in these actions because fairness is profitable.

Revamping racist origins of businesses and food brands

In addition to the beauty industry, business mascots with racist origins were also getting a new name and logo. Several businesses and food brands such as Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s and Mrs. Butterworth’s Cream of Wheat announced a revamp as they presented racially insensitive stereotypes and logos. Washington Football Team, which previously called themselves The Washington Redskins were forced to change the name after the protests.

These brands were asked about changing the offensive names and logos for many years but defended them until they were called out. Was this the original meaning behind Black Lives Matter by bringing diversity and educating people? No, it is not.

The movement was completely overtaken by actions that were not even important to the conversation. Instead of accountability and learning, all we got was another form of performative activism all in the name of diverting the brand image. Their actions were not tangible solutions as they did not help with sharing fundraisers or donating bail bonds.

Performative activism is a problem

Blackout Tuesday was a failure and it did not help because the massive posting of black squares drowned out the posts by organizing parties. It muted the conversation and changed the narrative on what is important. Sure, people reflected on their actions and promised to change their ways but was it effective enough?

The point of social media activism is to amplify the voices of Black people instead of putting yourself into the center. It’s important to know your privilege and where you come from to unlearn them. By putting the least amount of effort to fight the problem, there is not much learning one can do. It’s lazy and this sort of performative activism is silent and does not bring any kind of change to the movement.

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